Sacred Violence and Our Hidden Monsters

“Violence is a sacred act, but by sterilizing it, by treating all violence as bad, we disengage from the process of death and renewal. We disengage from our own wild nature. We lose fertility in the soil of our souls and become a barren land.”

On the Nature of Violence, from Mathieu Thiem

There is an aspect of violence which is sacred that we have all but forgotten. We have succumbed to a trend in which rage, anger, desperation, pain and great struggle have been swept under the rug for the sake of higher ideals sterilized from the gritty reality of injustice and suffering.

When we really understand violence, we come to find that it points to the underlying conditions which have manifested it. Violence is merely the symptom of a greater problem. There are terrible issues with violence, don’t assume that I am somehow stating it is a good thing, but by lumping all kinds of violence into one category, we do a disservice to violence as an indicator of a deeper disharmony.

In many “pre-civilized” societies, violence was an inevitable part of the conditions of life. Such societies even ritualized violent wars to become the outlet by which conflict between tribes was resolved. Sure, people died in warfare, but far fewer compared to the wars of empire. Ritualization of violence was a way by which people could have a controlled and sacred space to confront the darker nature of themselves and society. It was a way of giving voice to their darkness so that they could hear the powerful medicine that lay embedded in its constructs. But when we have lost this ability to give voice to our shadows, when we have lost the ability to seek medicine with the intelligent connections of struggle and conflict, how then do we hide violence within our lives?

In civilization, where we eschew violence altogether (unless it is the violence of the State), violence emerges and interweaves itself throughout our society without most ever being cognizant of it. For instance, privilege is an act of systemic violence, money is an act of systemic violence, so too is class, rape culture, hierarchy, bosses, fines, taxes that pay for war and programs that oppress, coca cola, coffee, chocolate, gas lighting–the list goes on and on. Violence is interwoven within society in some very unnoticeable ways. We often don’t realize the weight of injustice pressed upon us, nor what we perpetuate in turn.

Instead of viewing violence as a moral problem of right and wrong, we need to view violence as an indicator of deeper cultural pathologies. Many of us feel a deep revulsion to the term violence, as many of us have seen its effects, but when I talk about sacred violence it tends to also have a near identical response, if not coupled with a kind of morbid curiosity. I challenge you to look into this feeling and its underlying conditions.

Sacred violence is less about committing violence against the other and more about understanding violence as an indicator of a deeper problem. We act in violence everyday, our lives revolve around violence. And there are many times we unknowingly commit acts of violence against another. This can be readily observed within loving relationships where partners or family members violate your agency or seek to control you by projecting their identities of you onto the world and yourself. There is a deep controlling narrative to human relationships that can be extremely toxic; however, these again are symptoms of a pathology that caused people to be this way. In many ways violence is the only way we know how to confront a problem, not because we desire to, but because we truly don’t know how else to act (if we are even conscious of our violent responses). It is only by engaging in struggle that the reality of the solution can be found.

This is the crux of the problem with anti-violence: it is merely avoidance. Rather than seeking to sterilize the problem of violence, why don’t we bring forth its sacred nature and understand it for the reality it is exposing? Why do we not use violence as a way of uprooting the problems before they turn into a hidden monstrosity?

When we look upon a weed growing forth from crumbling concrete, we recognize this as a beautiful resistance. We fully comprehend this act of violence as a mode of righteous resistance, and according to many who view violence simply as destruction, is that not what is occurring when nature tears down empires? Do we look down upon the thunderbird as it destroys a city? Do we curse the strong oak tree for burning up the mulch machine? Do we demonize the wolf for killing the deer?

Nature’s violence is embedded into its operations. This violence is not a malice, but a striving towards survival and liberation. If we are able to see nature’s violence as a beautiful resistance, an affirmation of life, then why are we humans alienating ourselves from this nature and setting ourselves apart from these acts of sacred violence? Humanity’s act of sterilizing the natural world goes right into our morality as well, especially that of non-violence.

Those who view the dandelion in the concrete as weeds are themselves the perverse. Those who see the oak tree as an obstruction are the sick. Those who build cities in the path of thunderbirds are not heeding the wisdom of the land. Those who want the wolves dead are the ones who are desecrating the world. Those who seek to sterilize nature and prop up the great virtues of civilization are the same folk that seek to desecrate nature and create a world of hollow human values.

It perplexes me to see people assume there is always a way to avoid violence. We seem to think that there is always a way to escape the consequences of our actions, but this is always a lie. Reality doesn’t play out that way. Our actions are embedded into the system from which we operate, and we will always be made to face them. The things that cause us to struggle and live in pain, these things that come from the culmination of our externalized suffering, ingnoring responsibility whether collectively or individually, these things will always come back to cause us the pain that we sought to escape. We cannot escape the results of our actions. We can not cheat the ending of all things. The suffering and death of life: this will always be our fate.

Why then pretend there is always a way out? Why assume that we can bypass the struggle and pain of violent reorganizations of society and the self? Whether we are responsible for it or not, life does not ensure there is a way out of suffering, rather we are all the victims of the past. We are all bearers of the cycles of violence committed against one another. This violence moves forward with us. As long as we seek to deny death and suffering a rightful place at the table of our community, we will suffer the consequences of dishonored ancestors. We will be haunted by the unvirtuous dead that rise up during our own Ragnarok.

The story of Fenrir helps to understand violence. Odin and the Aesir were afraid of Fenrir, the wild chaotic nature of violence, and they bound him up in fear and cowardice of the inevitability of their own frailty. They thought that by controlling the process of the violence of nature, they could forever be safe. But it was this very action of seeking to bind and hide away this violence that they made an enemy of it. Externalizing their suffering became the very cause of their demise. The binding of Fenrir was the creation of a monster: out of fear they sought to bind him, and from the binding he grew in ferocity.

Often the only way to resolve conflict is to actually engage in the struggle. We must actively seek to wrestle the violent aspects of our nature to gain the relational intelligence that can open up the doors of resolving that violence. Within society and ourselves there are monsters that come to light only through our struggle in conflict. To ignore these darker parts of ourselves is to ignore reality. They need an outlet. They need a stage on which to be played.

Try to sterilize this concept of violence and we lose the fertility of its composting. Violence breaks things down in a way that allows for new things to grow. Violence is a sacred act, but by sterilizing it, by treating all violence as bad, we disengage from the process of death and renewal. We disengage from our own wild nature. We lose fertility in the soil of our souls and become a barren land.

There is a wildness at the heart of resistance. A ferocity let loose when facing oppression. Capitalism culls this ferality out of us, it tames us by commoditizing the meaning of our lives. But we only need to let it run free. There is within our wild ferocious hearts a yearning for freedom. Our desire to sink our teeth into an oppressor’s neck is not the same old cycle of violence, but the natural cycle of life. This sacred violence that we crave is none other than the ritual of life feeding death feeding life. To sterilize this sacred violence with civility is merely a perverse ideal wrapped in the packaging of commodified desecration. So let the blood flow from where it may. Let your teeth sink into all forms of injustice and pull out the jugular for all to see.

Mathieu Thiem

Mathieu Thiem is a bioregional animist who spends his time studying the art of mythic living and running a blog called The Woven Song.